A Judahite archive from the First Temple period
The Lachish Letters are a collection of texts excavated at biblical Lachish in southern Israel that date to the years immediately preceding the site’s destruction by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in the early sixth century BCE, as described in the Book of Jeremiah. Although only a few of the inscriptions remain legible, the information they provide has made them a key to understanding and interpreting historical events surrounding the fall of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, especially as some may link directly to events recorded in Jeremiah.
This article is part of an exclusive Bible History Daily series on historical texts that are important for understanding the history and world of the Bible.
While a host of inscriptions have been excavated at Lachish over the years—including the oldest known Canaanite sentence—the Lachish Letters typically refer to several dozen inscriptions excavated at the site of Tel Lachish from 1935 to 1938 and then by later excavations as well. Despite the name, only a handful of the Lachish Letters are actually letters; most are short administrative lists of individuals or dates, dates, while others are simply too fragmentary to interpret. As such, the collection is also (and perhaps more accurately) referred to as the Lachish Ostraca, as the inscriptions were all written on pottery sherds.
Written with ink, the inscriptions contain Hebrew writing in what is often described as a Old Hebrew cursive script, an evolution of the earlier Canaanite script and close relative to Phoenician, Moabite, and other regional scripts. Based on their archaeological context and paleography, the inscriptions date to the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, immediately preceding the fall of the city to the Babylonians.
Although the ostraca were discovered at Lachish, it is uncertain where they were first written. The letters especially pose a challenge, as scholars disagree on whether to understand them as archival copies of sent communications or as incoming letters to Lachish from smaller fortresses or even Jerusalem. Indeed, with the wide range of scribal hands attested on the various ostraca, both may be possible.
Many of the Lachish Letters deal with the military forces stationed at Lachish and other fortresses in the Judean Shephelah during the last years of the Kingdom of Judah. Since their discovery and publication, there have been numerous interpretations of the Lachish Letters. At various times, the texts have been considered part of a single correspondence, a dossier of texts pertaining to the trial of a military commander, numerous drafts of a single letter, or a collection of unconnected letters and records. Unfortunately, the fragmentary nature of the ostraca makes it very difficult to reach any definitive conclusions. Yet, with mentions of troop movements and references to enigmatic figures, the Lachish Letters provide historians, archaeologists, and biblical scholars with an important window into the period.
As a full discussion of the Lachish Letters could fill many books, this brief overview highlights two of the more intriguing letters, both of which shed light on the history of ancient Judah and possible connections to the biblical account. The first, often called Lachish #3, is a letter from one Hoshayahu to Yaush. Most scholars agree that Hoshayahu is likely the commander of a small garrison stationed near Lachish, perhaps at the nearby site of Maresha, Yaush appears to be the commander of the forces at Lachish or possibly the governor of the city.
The letter begins with Hoshayahu defending himself against an allegation raised by Yaush in a previous correspondence (which is not preserved). The allegation appears to be that Hoshayahu is illiterate, a claim he strongly rejects. Following his defense, Hoshayahu reports two important pieces of news. First, Konyahu (son of Elnatan and commander of the army) has gone down to Egypt. Second, an unnamed prophet has sent a message to Yaush, which is described by only the word “Beware!”
All three sections of the letter bear important information, with the discussion of Hoshayahu’s literacy being an important point in any discussion of the wider literacy of the period. However, it is the reports mentioning Konyahu and the unnamed prophet that have captured many scholars’ attention. Although the report of Konyahu’s travel to Egypt takes up only a few lines, scholars have proposed various interpretations, with some connecting Konyahu to the Elnatan son of Achbor who Jeremiah tells us went down to Egypt to bring Uriah the prophet back to Judah for execution (26:20–23). This interpretation likewise connects the prophet mentioned in the second report to Uriah. One difficulty with this interpretation is that Elnatan’s travels to Egypt would have taken place during the reign of Jehoiakim (r. 609-598 BCE), whereas the Lachish Letters are typically dated to a decade later, during the reign of Zedekiah (r. 597–586 BCE).
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A second, more cautious hypothesis suggests that Konyahu’s journey to Egypt was a sort of ambassadorial mission. During the reign of Zedekiah, Judah was caught between the forces of Egypt and the rising Babylonian Empire. As described in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, despite Babylon’s power, the Judahite monarchy sides with the Egyptians—against the urging of Jeremiah—trusting in their alliance with Pharaoh Hophra for protection (Ezekiel 17:15).
The letter’s enigmatic and unnamed prophet has similarly been the subject of various interpretations, with scholars viewing him as the prophet Uriah, the prophet Jeremiah, or one of the many other prophets at work in Judah at the time.
The second letter to discuss is Lachish #4. While this letter, unfortunately, does not include the names of either the sender or its recipient, it does contain several important reports. Most intriguing is the mention that the sender is watching the signal fires of Lachish, for they cannot see Azekah. The exact meaning and implication of this statement are debated, but it does resemble Jeremiah 6:1, which mentions the use of signal fires to warn of the invading Babylonian army, providing a plausible date for this text.
However, the reference to not being able to see Azekah is even more interesting. At the time of the Babylonian invasion, Lachish and Azekah were the two strongest Judahite cities in the Shephelah region, and the last two cities besides Jerusalem to withstand the army of Nebuchadnezzar II (Jeremiah 34:7). While some have interpreted this statement in a geographical sense—indicating that the letter’s sender was in a fortress that did not have a clear line of sight to Azekah—others have seen it in a far more dramatic light. As such, they interpret the text as a reference to the fall of Azekah to the Babylonians, placing the event in the days immediately preceding the fall of Lachish itself.
Many other inscriptions from Lachish also include fascinating information. Irrespective of possibly biblical connections, much is learned from them about the history, culture, language, scribal practices, and even religion of Judah during the final years of its independence. Beyond the Lachish Letters, many other collections of ancient Hebrew writing have been found over the last century. Combined with inscriptions from Ammon, Moab, Aram, and Phoenicia, the history of the ancient Levant continues to grow ever clearer.
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